Coming soon: 4,096 mutant versions of Windows

Not counting clones...

In his opening statement in the unsettling States' antitrust action yesterday Microsoft attorney Dan Webb explained the maths of Steve Ballmer's millions of versions of Windows nightmare, and promised much in the way of fireworks to come. The States' opening statement we can pass over unremarked, because we knew what they were going to say anyway, so it is Microsoft's defence that at this juncture provides the interest.

First, those numbers. According to Webb there would in fact be 4,096 mutant versions of Windows. This is based on there being ten middleware products which anyone who had licensed 10,000 or more copies of Windows could, under the States' proposed remedies, demand be removed from Windows. They could ask for all ten to be removed, they could ask for one to be removed, they could ask for any combination. This does not chalk up 4,096, of course, but Webb's argument is based on there being four versions of Windows, so it's 4x1,024. And no, it doesn't multiply up to 1,024 either, but we're sure that numerous Register readers who don't have lives will shortly tell us what it does add up to.

Not that we care, because it isn't the point. The point is that the States are really arguing for Windows to be designed in a componentised form where middleware from Microsoft could plug and play alongside midddleware from rival companies. This is hardly radical, and was proposed by a couple of IDC analysts (albeit with a good bit of PR-spin and timing attached) two years ago. Nor is it original from a design point of view - it was precisely what opponents who've long since become roadkill were arguing back in the early 90s, when Microsoft was sticking bits onto Windows more or less at random instead.

And, ahem, it might kind of relate to what DLLs were supposed to do before they became such a version control nightmare (wonder whose fault that was?) that we arrived at the total insanity of keeping multiple versions of the same DLL on the same machine in order that all of your programs stand a fighting chance of actually running.

Webb, and the technical experts he promises will support his case, may have a point when he claims that trying to disentangle Windows now would break it, but it's pretty clear whose fault that is, and if it's not stopped it'll only get worse, not better. The best defence, The Register suggests, would be to point out that the commingling of unrelated code for anticompetitive reasons accounts for only a small fraction of the whole nightmare, version-control free entanglement, and that it is not the place of the courts to benefit consumers by forcing companies to design decent software. This is, unfortunately, true, but we can see how Microsoft might have a slight problem arguing the point.

Back, however, to more frivolous matters. Webb's preamble outlines the Doomsday Defence:

"remedy proposal, number 1, will force Microsoft to withdraw Windows from the marketplace. One of the most valuable pieces of intellectual property in the world. That's a pretty Draconian remedy.

"Number two, that remedy, the evidence will establish, will unfairly confiscate billions -- yes -- billions of dollars of Microsoft's intellectual property.

"And, number three, we will prove without question that that remedy will severely damage Microsoft's ability to innovate new products and to effectively compete in a marketplace.

"All of this, to the detriment of consumers and major sections of the PC industry."

To cut a long story short, the 4,096 versions of Windows will kill it (5m person hours claimed testing of WinXP, multiply by 4,096, keep multiplying), forced licensing of Office will steal Microsoft's IP and money and destroy the value of Office (and is also unconstitutional), and general restrictions will stop Microsoft being able to innovate. Along the way the disclosure of APIs will make it easy to clone Windows, and for some reason the word "Sun" crosses Webb's lips in relation to this matter. Webb also claims Microsoft has spent $4.5 billion on .NET development over the past year - this is entirely unrelated, apart from being a big number, but we'd like to see a breakdown.

Much fun, too, is promised for the puppermaster defence. Microsoft will provide evidence that "Oracle, Sun, AOL Time Warner" have been pulling the strings, and "actually were the originators of some of the provisions that appear in the nonsettling states' remedy proposals." Which they were, and Webb admits this isn't illegal, but they'll also be tarred as the chief beneficiaries of the destruction of Microsoft. Which again, they would be, but it should make a spectacular show all the same, provided not too many of the witnesses turn out to be stiffs.

Webb also outlined the various areas Microsoft's own witnesses would cover. In general, these are pretty obvious, but there are two worth looking out for. First, we have Bill's Excellent Adventure and the History of the Computer Industry, and second, an explanation of how the unsettling States proposals constitute a vast security nightmare. Both are clearly worth looking forward to.

The security scare is simply tantalising: "Roger Needham, who works for Microsoft in England and who has a lot of job experience in the area of security... will pinpoint for Your Honor the sections that will require or that create the greatest security risk, and he will explain to Your Honor in some detail that the nonsettling states' remedy proposal is truly a recipe for a security disaster, and he will discuss in detail the provisions that relate to that."

Alas, that's all we have for the moment, so we'll have to wait for Roger to take the stand. Bill's bit, however, sounds like it's going to be utterly treasurable. "We will present evidence, primarily through Mr. Gates, about the historic role Microsoft played in the formation and development of the ecosystem [NB this is a new Microsoft marketing word that has apparently now made it through to the attorneys]. They had a vision. Their vision was that Microsoft could facilitate consumer acceptance of personal computers if it developed this common operating system that could be installed in many different configurations of personal computers and that would provide these blocks of software code that software programmers, application developers could write to. That was the dream. That was the idea. That if you could develop an operating system that would have this widespread usage, that a lot of good things would come up that."

Sounds suspiciously like he's bought Bill's version of history wholesale, doesn't it? Yes he has: "And it was in 1981 Microsoft introduced its first operating system called MS-DOS." No mention of IBM, no mention of neither IBM nor Microsoft thinking anything other than this was a short production run home computer, no mention of the lucky break of having a lawyer father and thus winding up with a favourable contract where IBM had PC-DOS and Microsoft had the franchise for everything else. Nor indeed, mention of getting hold of QDOS quick and cheap in order to be able to fulfill the IBM contract in the first place, then paying off the author a couple of years down the line. But we're sure Bill will set him straight when he takes the stand, and we're looking forward to that. ®

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